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Biden budget lifts restriction on funds for abortions, keeps ban on pot sales

WASHINGTON - President Joe Bidens proposed budget removes a provision that blocks D.C. from using local tax dollars to cover abortions for low-income women - but preserves a ban on selling and taxing marijuana in the nations capital, a blow to city leaders.

The spending plan released Friday also boosts money for the District's Tuition Assistance Grants, which subsidize tuition at state universities for most D.C. residents.

In addition, Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's nonvoting representative in the House, said the White House has indicated it wants to start "winding down" a Republican-backed federal voucher program that offers taxpayer-funded private school scholarships to low-income D.C. students.

Each program or restriction is an example of the ways in which Congress wields unusual power over governance in the District of Columbia, which has pushed for years to become an independent state.

The Biden administration's decision to remove the D.C. abortion rider appears to be in line with the president's proposed elimination of the Hyde Amendment, which has barred states from using federal funds for abortion since 1976.

The D.C.-specific restriction, strongly backed by Republican lawmakers, means low-income women also could not get funding from the District government to help them access abortion services.

Congress can make changes as it considers Biden's spending plan, and Republicans could put up a prolonged fight, based on their strong belief that taxpayer dollars should not be used to fund abortions. But Norton said she's optimistic that Democrats' narrow control of both chambers will make it harder for Republicans to restore the rider.

"It is the longest-standing rider we have had since I've been in Congress," Norton said. "It's really been the hardest to remove. Considering its widespread effects, that is a major improvement and accomplishment."

According to the Congressional Research Service, Congress has placed some limit or prohibition on the use of taxpayer money to fund abortions in the District since 1979, with a short-lived reprieve in 2010. City leaders accused President Barack Obama in subsequent years of using the D.C. abortion rider as a "bargaining chip" in budget debates to avert a federal government shutdown.

Laura Meyers, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, described Biden's move as "tremendous" for women in D.C. - as long as Congress sustains it.

"Because D.C. is not a state, D.C. cannot use its locally raised tax dollars the way 17 other states do to provide equal and equitable access to abortion for women," she said. "And of course the burden falls disproportionately on people and communities of color."

Norton said she planned to push her Democratic colleagues to remove both the abortion rider and the marijuana rider from the federal budget. She said she had a hard time squaring Biden's decision to remove one rider but keep another, finding it "inconsistent" with the president's strong backing of D.C. statehood.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government, said he will oppose the inclusion in the budget of any provisions "that dictate to the District of Columbia what its laws should be or how it spends its money."

"In my view, the Congress has no business substituting its judgment for the decisions of the elected representatives of the District of Columbia," he said in an interview.

D.C. residents can possess and grow small amounts of marijuana, thanks to a voter-approved law from 2014. But the federal rider prohibits the city from regulating and taxing recreational sales of the drug, blocking the opening of recreational marijuana dispensaries and a potentially lucrative revenue option.

D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George, D-Ward 4 said she and her colleagues fully expected that Biden would support the removal of the rider. In anticipation of such a change, Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser in February proposed the Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2021, which would legalize recreational dispensaries, require automatic expungement of criminal records for certain marijuana convictions and distribute marijuana sales tax revenue to certain wards and programs to help disadvantaged residents.

"The feeling among all of us is disappointment and shock," Lewis George said Friday of Biden's inclusion of the rider in the budget. Especially after the economically devastating coronavirus pandemic, she said, the city was looking to generate more revenue with marijuana sales - and boost entrepreneurial opportunities in the Black community, which was disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about Biden's decision to keep the rider in place. Press secretary Jen Psaki has previously said Biden supports states' rights to legalize recreational marijuana, but the president has stopped short of endorsing legalization himself.

On the education front, Norton said the Biden administration is seeking to stop adding new students to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was created by a Republican-controlled Congress in 2004. It is the only federally funded school choice program in the country.

The program is generally opposed by public school advocates, teachers unions and many Democrats. Bowser, however, has not lobbied to eliminate it - citing concern that doing so could jeopardize federal school funding for D.C. public and charter schools.

The mayor's office did not immediately respond to questions about the scholarship program.

Published : May 30, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Meagan Flynn